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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

growing human institutions‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.

Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.

This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.

Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…

Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:

1. Flexibility
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.

Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.

2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.

3. Autonomy
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.

Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.

4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:

1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.

As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.

5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.

If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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